Philosophy and Free Culture, Part I

This is the first in a series of articles that I will be writing for a new magazine, called The Coffee Companion.

During the last century continuing through to the present day, philosophy has come to be identified increasingly with the work of the professional philosopher; its techniques and rich vocabulary needing years of study to master, its history seen as an artefactual object best suited for academic analysis, its practice relegated to classrooms and professional conferences, and its ideas monologically transmitted to a select audience of experts, eventually calcified in journals and books inaccessible or unknown to the general public. Unclear is whether this causes or is symptomatic of a focus on issues so esoteric and obscure as to appear altogether divorced from the questions and concerns that arise from reflection on everyday experience. What is clear is that philosophy's professionalization marks the beginning of its virtual extinction outside the cloistered halls of the University.

The logic of professionalism demands that the responsibility of doing philosophy rests on the shoulders of those who receive pay for it. The reality of professionalism demands that the non-philosopher have no time for it. This leaves the general impression nowadays that philosophers make a career of dealing with philosophical issues so that the public no longer needs to. Jane Doe, Eddy Punchclock, and Joe the Plumber can rest at night knowing that their tax dollars and payments on their children's college tuition support Steve the Scientist's research which will spark technological innovation, Bob the Business Professor's training of legions of entrepreneurs destined to create new markets or redefine old ones, and Bella the Biologist's work on fighting life-threatening diseases. The tasks of one's own profession coupled with the hustle and bustle of day to day living are often so consuming that simultaneously taking on the task of another profession becomes practically unimaginable. Jane, Eddy, and Joe aren't expected to perform the tasks that Steve, Bob, and Bella's respective professions demand. So why should philosophy be any different? What makes Pete the Philosopher's quest to tackle Life's Big Questions - or whatever it is that philosophers do - an exception?

Often coupled with the logic and reality of professionalism is the notion that the worth of an activity or discipline should be measured by the degree to which it can maximize productivity and financial benefit. All this coalesces to the point where utilization of one's talents and intellectual abilities for reflection on things beyond one's own profession becomes optional. This spells bad news for philosophy: not only does it “bake no bread,” it doesn't even help one effectively sell the bread one bakes. For all intents and purposes, the professional non-philosopher's engagement in philosophy reduces to recreation and even the professional philosophers' work is best regarded with marginal importance.

In the current state of the art, then, consideration about whether one should refrain from doing philosophy is virtually self-affirming, since philosophical reflection appears to bear little significance to action. Yet, ironically, a tinge of reflection on the above appraisal quickly reveals that one should proceed with caution in endorsing a system that takes action as the sole determinant of value. Though it may be true that certain principles are rejected or endorsed on account of the actions to which they lead, it is nevertheless also true that actions are treated with contempt or esteem on account of their agreement or disagreement with principles. Thus, if action is itself treated as the final evaluative principle, one should only unreflectively endorse those actions one already engages in.

The danger in all this is that as actions change, one would lack the sense to determine whether one's actions should have changed. What hangs in balance here outstrips individual concern. An unreflective public in the habit of making irrationally uninformed decisions would be prepared to surrender voluntarily whatever social and political power they might have for the sake of salvaging or enhancing some feature of commercially productive action. Were the loss of critical self-awareness to become commonplace (as some may argue it already has), this would spell disaster for free and democratic culture, since the latter depends on individuals taking responsibility for making rationally informed decisions in the common interest. As such, widespread philosophical reflection treated in high regard appears essential to the preservation of free, democratic culture. Yet in order for this to be realized, philosophy would need to be restored in some measure to its Socratic origins as an activity in which members of society participate in a collective, public, and sustained cross-examination of tacit assumptions about human conduct and the world. That is, philosophy must be understood to be more than mere profession.

1 comment:

  1. Extremely Well articulated!

    Professional Philosophy is essential what you say it is, and philosophy has been regulated to that.

    And in these troubling economic times the humanities are in real trouble. People can't see how they justify their existence.

    I always thought that point of Philosophy - and the humanities in general - was to help people develop their potentialities, to grow and mature into responsible, intelligent adult human beings.

    People informed by a liberal arts education are suppossed to be more capable of particpating in the democratic process, improving the world, having more satisfying relationships, feasting on the joy of understanding.

    But this is the problem with our culture of increasing professionalism and consumerism.

    It's horrifying.

    Good news about the magazine deal, I look forward to your articles